Wednesday, March 4, 2015


Gábor Bethlen

Wars, famine, and natural calamities at the turn of the sixteenth century had caused demographic and economic disaster in the kingdom, and the situation in Transylvania was not much better. Half of the population is said to have disappeared, and 90 percent of property is thought to have been damaged. These figures may seem exaggerated, but they indicate the extreme gravity of the situation. Transylvania soon recovered, however. Indeed, the seventeenth century came to be seen as its golden age. By 1660 the population had grown to 955,000, made up of six main nationalities (and several smaller ones).

Magyars and Szeklers constituted the majority (500,000), followed by Romanians or Wallachians (280,000), Saxons (90,000), Serbians, Ukrainians, and others (85,000). Five languages were spoken and six religions practiced, excluding the Jewish faith and smaller sects. Magyar settlement in the region has its roots in the migrations, when the variously identified indigenous populations were submerged. Most of the new conquerors left Transylvania in search of pasture on the plain, but the region remained under their military control and soon was resettled by Magyars and Szeklers.

The Szeklers (Székely in Hungarian) arrived with the conquerors in 895, probably as army auxiliaries; they spoke Hungarian and are thought to have been of Magyar or Turkish origin. Deployed to guard the eastern frontiers, by the thirteenth century the Szeklers constituted a homogeneous and tightly knit community that preserved its own social and cultural characteristics. Traditionally all were free and equal; there were neither bondservants nor nobles among them, and their leaders were seen as chieftains. By the sixteenth century, the old military and social structures were eroding, but it was still a closed society, fiercely protective of its freedoms, as proved by numerous uprisings. The Szeklers allied themselves with the two other Transylvanian nations, the Magyars and the Saxons. Together, the three made up the diet of Transylvanian States, which seized its independence from the Hungarian Diet of the royal territory.

The origins of the Saxons in Transylvania date back to the early Árpád period. First invited to settle by Géza III in the twelfth century, they came from Flanders, the Rhine region, and Wallonia, rather than Saxony. They were given considerable privileges to maintain their independent administrative and judiciary system, as they introduced advanced agricultural techniques and artisanship and founded thriving urban centers. Primarily Lutheran and Melanchtonian evangelicals, their churches and Gothic buildings are among the country’s most beautiful monuments. Hardworking and commercially prosperous, the Saxons provided the economic base for the golden age of the seventeenth century princes.

The Romanians, although quite numerous, did not enjoy the same rights as the “three nations.” The Orthodox religion was tolerated but not recognized to the same extent as Catholicism and Protestantism. Most Romanians, except for the village chiefs and boiars, who were assimilated into the Hungarian nobility, were serfs. Romanian communities certainly existed in Transylvania around the same time as the Szeklers and Saxons, but the issue of the origins of Romanians in the region divides Hungarian and Romanian historians, reflecting national ideological differences, and seems likely to remain disputed for some time to come.

In the middle of the sixteenth century Transylvania became a distinct and recognized state. The rise and survival of specific administrative and cultural structures culminated in a key historical turning point, a series of anti-Habsburg wars. The first of these was led by Count István Bocskai, who formed an army of free soldiers, called hajdú, and was then joined by Transylvania’s “three nations.” A great fighter of Ottomans in the Fifteen Years War, Bocskai turned against the Habsburgs in 1604 and conducted a successful campaign, reaching the gates of Vienna. Eventually he was forced to sign the Treaty of Vienna (1606), which guaranteed Transylvania’s independence and religious freedom, and was followed by a twenty-year tripartite peace treaty with the sultan.

Bocskai’s brief era was a historical turning point. It ushered in a century of anti-Habsburg struggles, mainly led by Transylvanian princes. Their objective was always the same: to unify the country under Hungarian sovereignty. The dilemma too was the same: how to drive both Turks and Habsburgs out of Hungary. Though weakened as a result of the Treaty of Westphalia at the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1648), the Habsburgs still had an empire behind them. As for the Ottoman Empire, it numbered 30 million subjects and possessed an army that was reputedly invincible. Faced with these two giants, Transylvania, with its 1 million inhabitants and limited resources, was not up to the confrontation, even though it did succeed more than once in rallying the Habsburgs’ Hungarian subjects.

Still, Transylvania had its golden age. The country found its brightest star in Gábor Bethlen (1613–1629). He had played an important role under Bocskai and in the struggles over succession. When elected prince, he had to make humiliating concessions to the Ottoman Empire, and he also made a number of internal mistakes, only later realizing that the prosperity of his subjects was better for the treasury than despoilment or irregular and unpredictable fiscal policies. His subsequent economic policy proved fruitful; regulated foreign trade brought in revenues, and everyone profited. Urban centers developed, Renaissance buildings sprang up, and public education reached unprecedented levels. This most eastern Protestant country—back to back with the Habsburgs—was soon drawn into the Thirty Years’ War, beginning with a conflict between the Czechs and Ferdinand II, an implacable foe of the Reformation. Bethlen joined the Czechs and campaigned as far as the gates of Vienna. In 1620 the diet offered him the Hungarian Crown, but the Czech defeat at the Battle of the White Mountain cut him short. Nonetheless, the emperor was in a perilous position, and Bethlen was quick to take advantage of this, negotiating a very favorable compromise. Under the Treaty of Nikolsburg (1621), he renounced the royal crown but maintained control of seven counties in Upper Hungary. His sovereignty over Transylvania was never questioned.

Bethlen made several attempts to realize his anti-Habsburg plans, but never achieved national unification. The equation remained the same: the Habsburgs could only be kept out with the support of the Ottoman Empire, but in order to get rid of the latter, Bethlen would have to call on the Habsburgs. In the end, enthusiasm waned. Transylvanian lords were unwilling to mobilize in support of a policy perceived as Bethlen’s personal ambition, while the kingdom’s nobility wanted to curb powers conferred on him by his elevation to royal status, which Bethlen had in any case turned down.

At a time when absolutism was on the rise throughout Europe, the authority of the Transylvanian princes was of a more personal nature. They were local nobility, preceded by princes from the Báthorys, and succeeded by those of the Rákóczi family, members of which were skilled at amassing wealth. When György Rákóczi died in 1648, he left behind a country that was well governed, prosperous, and with an acquired habit of religious tolerance. His son György Rákóczi II nurtured larger ambitions, though he turned out to be far less successful, mounting a foolhardy incursion into Poland. He never recovered from the defeat, and Transylvania’s star fell with him. Successors of little significance followed and Transylvania’s golden age came to an end. It was invaded by the Turks and later occupied by the imperial army of Leopold I.

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